Magazine | December 31, 2018, Issue

Dat’s Capital

Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan speaks at a Brookings Institution forum on “Achieving Strong Economic Growth” in Washington, D.C., April 8, 2015. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Capitalism in America: A History, by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge (Penguin, 496 pages, $35)

With 29-year-old “democratic socialist” and imminent congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez widely seen as the harbinger of a future that, with luck, I may be too aged to see through to Caracas, Capitalism in America may come to be regarded as an obituary as much as a history. Not that its two authors, Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist — a magazine now closer to Davos liberalism than to the classical kind — and Alan Greenspan, who needs no introduction, would see it that way. Capitalism in America is a celebration — some of it should be read to music, Sousa, say, when the narrative reaches the Gilded Age — of the economic system that took the U.S. to the top of the world and could, maintain Greenspan and Wooldridge, still keep it there. They may warn of “America’s fading dynamism,” but they conclude that the country “is trapped in an iron cage of its own making,” to which it “has all the keys that it needs.” The question is whether it has the “political will” to use them. Indeed.

Messrs. Wooldridge and Greenspan possess a sharp understanding of the political foundations of American growth — as they must. There were, after all, other large countries blessed with rich resources and abundant land, and, as the 19th century drew on, the ability to exploit them. Argentina’s great liberal president, Domingo Sarmiento (1811–88), dreamt of emulating the developing colossus to the north. By the 1890s, Argentina was among the wealthiest places on earth (on one measure, briefly the richest), and European immigrants were pouring in. And yet the U.S. now stands where it now does, and Argentina is, well, Argentina.

“Anyone who regards economic history,” caution Greenspan and Wooldridge, “as history with the politics left out is reading the wrong book.” America’s economics would have been impossible without its politics, and the latter were, the authors emphasize, profoundly shaped by the happy timing of the country’s founding, born in the age of enlightenment. Although they do not explicitly say so, the variant of the Enlightenment that weighed most on the Founding Fathers, for ancestral as well as intellectual reasons, was British, the fruit of an incremental process dating back to (at least) 1688, rather than its more radical French alternative. Moreover, it was buttressed by having inherited what Greenspan and Wooldridge refer to as “many of Britain’s best traditions,” from the common law to a certain respect for individual rights. In that sense, “the American Revolution was only a half revolution.” The nascent republic was marked by a suspicion of both monarchical rule and unrestrained popular government. Commerce was able to slip through the gaps, helped by, as the authors explain, the insights of Adam Smith, the prohibition of internal trade barriers, and — a critical incentive for the enterprising — the strong defense of property (including intellectual-property) rights enshrined in the new Constitution.

This settlement was made easier to sustain by the United States’ birth in “an age of growth — an age when the essential economic problem was to promote the forces of change rather than to divvy up a fixed set of resources,” a summary that is on the crude side — fighting over the proceeds of growth can be ugly enough — but works well enough for a country that, more than anywhere else at that epoch, was a land of opportunity.

And what allowed America’s inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs to make so much of this opportunity was the extent to which creative destruction (to Greenspan and Wooldridge, “the ‘perennial gale’ that uproots businesses — and lives — but that, in the process, creates a more productive economy”) was allowed free rein. In this heroic retelling — Howard Zinn, avert your eyes — of America’s expansion (the Gilded Age is rechristened “the Age of Giants”), creative destruction — the hammer in the invisible hand — is the mightiest hero of all, “the principal driving force of economic progress.” The government’s job, the authors note approvingly (did I mention that Alan Greenspan was a part of Ayn Rand’s circle?), was to protect property rights and the sanctity of contracts and then, rather than “tame” creative destruction, enable it and get out of the way. Less was more: “The old nations creep on at a snail’s pace,” wrote Andrew Carnegie. “The Republic thunders past with the rush of an express.”

While praising America “as a huge positive” not only for itself, but for what it has given the wider world, the authors don’t gloss over the darker side of “numerous disgraces” that have marred its rise. Slavery was a system resting “on foundations of unfathomable cruelty” that brought riches to the South but condemned it to economic backwardness as well as moral squalor. They also acknowledge that the state played a more active role in America’s economic explosion than it might be polite to mention in Galt’s Gulch. Railways, in many respects the Internet of the era (though, in a testimony to a time of remarkable innovation, there’s also the telegraph to think of), benefited — as, subsequently, did the Internet itself — from Uncle Sam’s largesse. Vast land grants offered railway companies the chance to risk a fortune building rails “in the middle of nowhere” in the hope of making a fortune by turning a “piece of nowhere into a part of the global economy.”

The authors write snappily and memorably, but not at the expense of subtlety. Thomas Edison’s “greatest claim to fame is arguably not as an inventor but as a systematizer of invention.” He created the first industrial laboratory and staffed it with “German PhDs, skilled craftsmen, and ‘absolutely insane men,’” the last category a preview, perhaps, of the pizza-munching Asperger’s army taking a (silicon) valley to fresh peaks.

By outlining the backgrounds of these economic pioneers, an impressively recurrent tale of creativity, social mobility, and sometimes uncontainable energy (Isaac Singer, of sewing-machine fame, sowed very widely, fathering at least 24 children, and, at one point, ran three households simultaneously), Greenspan and Wooldridge highlight the extent to which the American story was one of individual achievement. Those individuals did, Mr. Obama, build this.

But as the country grew richer, its politics changed, reflecting the growing electoral clout of those at the rough end of creative destruction, mounting alarm at escalating oligarchic and corporate power and its abuse (Teddy Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth”), and a broader shift in opinion away from laissez-faire. This transformation in sentiment was accelerated by the Depression and two world wars but was well under way from the beginning of the 20th century, not least due to the size, complexity, and problems — “pollution,” relate Greenspan and Wooldridge, “on a terrifying scale” — of a country growing at an astonishing rate, a new kind of society that, it seemed self-evident, required steering by more than an invisible hand. There was also an early flowering of what has become an endemic phenomenon: “By producing prosperity, capitalism creates its own gravediggers in the form of a comfortable class of intellectuals and politicians” able to use the negative side of creative destruction to sell their own agenda.

The final two-thirds of the book details the evolution of American capitalism since the assault on laissez-faire first gathered speed. Adaptive, protean, and endlessly inventive, capitalism has proved to be more resilient than its early-20th-century champions might have expected. Government activism may have ebbed and flowed (this is not, incidentally, a book for FDR fans), but even if the Constitution acted as a restraint on the state’s encroachments, it never returned to low tide. Nevertheless, America’s private sector remained re­markably productive, famously through the 1920s, but again in the long post-WWII boom. Revived by Ronald Reagan after the stagflation of the 1970s, it flourished during what Greenspan and Wooldridge dub “the age of optimism” until the arrival of lean years marked by the dotcom bust, the runaway spending of the George W. Bush years, and the financial crisis, a catastrophe about which these authors have disappointingly (considering the identity of one of them) little that is novel to say.

Looking, however, beyond the proximate causes of the Great Recession, the authors are right to see signs of a deeper malaise in the economy, a creeping sickness that shows up in many ways, including lower productivity, declining social mobility, and unhealthy concentration in many industries. They attribute much of this to a decline in American exceptionalism. Creative destruction’s wild ride is being replaced by excessive risk aversion and overregulation. And they fret about swelling entitlements, both for their ultimate unaffordability and for the way they encourage consumption over the saving that is essential to fund productivity growth.

In an attempt to bring back a little cheer as their book draws to a close, Greenspan and Wooldridge observe that “America leads in all the industries that are inventing the future,” including artificial intelligence and robotics. But that future comes with a catch that they may have missed. Neither those industries nor their immediate digital predecessors, prime examples of creative destruction, are replacing the jobs or the wage rates to which they are laying waste. That could well account for more of America’s malaise than Greenspan and Wooldridge would care to admit, and may — Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or even Ocasio-Cortez could all be straws in a very different gale — herald an era of destruction with nothing creative about it.

In This Issue



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